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Day-Care Dilemma

Disappearing Options Create a Parent Trap

Parents must apply more scrutiny than ever before to find quality child care in economically tough times. The bad economy has forced centers to close, thus narrowing parents’ options. And lax oversight of child care in some states means that you might not get much help in trying to determine where your child will get the best care.

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When her son’s child-care center closed in the summer of 2009, Shoshannah Hudak was devastated, because both she and her son had been happy with Children’s Choice in Tucson, Ariz. What Hudak didn’t realize is that the economic crisis that forced Children’s Choice to close also would make it a real challenge for her to find a new child-care center that provided the same quality of care.

When Hudak visited and called child-care centers that she had on a list from the first time that she had searched, she found that several other centers also had gone out of business. “It’s nerve-wracking to try to find child care when you lose something you really like. And on top of it, the number of facilities I could choose from had dwindled.” Hudak says.

After taking time off from work to visit child-care facilities, Hudak chose a center that seemed OK. But her son wasn’t happy there, and Hudak says he was bitten by other children four times in 6 months. Hudak desperately looked for another center, but she couldn’t find better options. Finally, the day after her son turned 2, Hudak switched him to a child-care center for children 2 and older that is owned and operated by the same couple who ran Children’s Choice.

Throughout the country, unemployment is up and state spending is down. Consequently, many parents who pay for child care and parents who depend on state subsidies are unable to keep their kids in child care.

Shopping for child care—whether it’s a day-care center, a preschool or a home-based care provider—can be a challenge even in the best of times, because it can be difficult to determine which child-care centers have the best curriculum and the safest environment. But shopping for child care in tough times is even more frustrating, because child-care shortages in communities where facilities have begun to close mean that fewer options are available. As child-care costs continue to rise and more families cut their spending, parents increasingly seek out lower child-care rates. But to accomplish that, parents are moving their children to poorer quality facilities and, in many cases, facilities that have little or no regulation.

Perhaps now more than ever parents must do their homework before they shop for child care. Unfortunately, according to some experts whom we interviewed, the situation could get worse before it gets better.

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COST CONCERNS. Child care is expensive, and good child care even more so. According to a June report from National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA), average annual fees in 2009 for an infant at a child-care center cost anywhere from $4,560 (in Mississippi) to $18,773 (in Massachusetts). In 36 states, the average annual cost for an infant at a child-care center was more than 10 percent of the median income for a two-parent family. In every region of the country, the annual costs for center-based child care for an infant were more than what the average household spent on food in a year.

And, since 2000, prices have increased twice as fast as the increase in the median income of families who have children, according to the same NACCRRA report. Part of the problem is that although child care is expensive for parents, it isn’t lucrative for the centers that provide the care, says Erik Karolak, who is the executive director of Early Care and Education Consortium, which is a group of more than 9,000 U.S. child-care centers. For consumers, this means that child-care providers have little to no room for you to negotiate lower prices.

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